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Children and Hunger

I. In the Case of "The Envelope" I Am Asked To Save (Prevent) Thirty Children from Dying. Surely World Hunger Affects Many People, Young and Old Alike: Why Are Children Being Singled Out for My Attention and Concern?

"Children are the real victims of world hunger: at least 70% of the malnourished people of the world are children. By best estimates forty thousand children a day die of starvation (Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO) 1992a: World Food Supplies and Prevalence of Chronic Undernutrition in Developing Regions as Assessed in 1992. Rome: FAO Press: 5). Children do not have the ability to forage for themselves, and their nutritional needs are exceptionally high. Hence, they are unable to survive for long on their own, especially in lean times. Moreover, they are especially susceptible to diseases and conditions which are the staple of undernourished people: simple infections and simple diarrhea (United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) 1993: The State of the World's Children 1993. Oxford: Oxford University Press: 22). Unless others provide adequate food, water, and care, children will suffer and die (World Health Organization (WHO) 1974: Health Statistics Report. Geneva: World Health Organization: 677, 679). This fact must frame any moral discussions of the problem.

"And so it does at least pre-reflectively. When most of us first see pictures of seriously undernourished children, we want to help them, we have a sense of responsibility to them, we feel sympathy toward them (Hume, D. 1978: A Treatise of Human Nature, L.A. Selby-Bigge (ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press: 368-71). Even those who think we needn't or shouldn't help the starving take this initial response seriously: they go to great pains to show that this sympathetic response should be constrained. They typically claim that assisting the hungry will demand too much of us, or that assistance would be useless and probably detrimental. An effort is, therefore, made to show that this sympathetic reaction is morally inappropriate, not that it does not exist.

"Our initial sense of responsibility to the starving and malnourished children of the world is intricately tied to their being paradigmatically vulnerable and innocent. They are paradigmatically vulnerable because they do not have the wherewithal to care for themselves; they must rely on others to care for them. All children are directly dependent on their parents or guardians, while children whose parents cannot provide them food -- either because of famine or economic arrangements - are also indirectly dependent on others: relief agencies or (their own or foreign) governments. Children are paradigmatically innocent since they are neither causally nor morally responsible for their plight. They did not cause drought, parched land, soil erosion, and over-population; nor are they responsible for social, political, and economic arrangements which make it more difficult for their parents to obtain food. If anyone were ever an innocent victim, the children who suffer and die from hunger are.

"Infants are especially vulnerable. They temporarily lack the capacities which would empower them to acquire the necessities of life. Thus, they are completely dependent on others for sustenance. This partly explains our urge to help infants in need. James Q. Wilson claims that our instinctive reaction to the cry of a newborn child is demonstrated quite early in life.

"'As early as ten months of age, toddlers react visibly to signs of distress in others, often becoming agitated; when they are one and a half years old they seek to do something to alleviate the other's distress; by the time they are two years old they verbally sympathize . . . and look for help' (Wilson, J. 1993: The Moral Sense. New York: The Free Press: 139-40).

"Although this response may be partly explained by early training, available evidence suggests that humans have an 'innate sensitivity to the feelings of others' (Wilson 1993: 140). Indeed, Hans Jonas claims the parent- child relationship is the 'archetype of responsibility,' where the cry of the newborn baby is an ontic imperative 'in which the plain factual "is" evidently coincides with an "ought"' (Jonas, H. 1984: The Imperative of Responsibility. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 30).

- Hugh LaFolette & Larry May, "Suffer the Children" in World Hunger and Morality. Ed. William Aiken and Hugh LaFolette. Prentice Hall: Princeton, New Jersey, 1998.

Some useful links:

   " Children and Poverty," NPR's Talk of the Nation. Guests: Dr. Marc J. Cohen, Editor, What Governments Can Do: Seventh Annual Report on the State of World Hunger, Senior Research Associate, Bread for the World Institute; Debbie Shore, Associate Director, Share Our Strength. October 21, 1996.

   Towards a Children's Agenda: New Challenges for Social Development. Provided by Save the Children. Documents the neglect of chldren's interests in development planning and offers alternatives.

Children in Need

The Convention on the Rights of the Child

Toward universal ratification: Only two more States to go !

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The State of the World's Children: 1996

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February 14, 1998
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